Eli Walker was pursuing an acting career when she started teaching yoga. She saw a major connection between the performing arts and yoga — but realized yoga was much more rigid and patriarchal. She wondered what would happen if yoga classes were made a little more social (and more fun). Then, at a bar in Lower Manhattan, she had a great idea: combining yoga with a bit of wine.
Two years later, her company, Drunk Yoga, is a nationwide brand that hosts retreats and shares the joy of yoga with people of all kinds. We spoke to her more about how she took her company from concept to success, the challenges she's overcome to do what she loves and how she unwinds from a busy day teaching students and managing business. She also shared her best advice for women who want a career like hers.
Fairygodboss of the Week: Eli Walker
Founder and CEO of Drunk Yoga
Greater New York City Area
Tell us a little about your career. How did you get to where you are now?
I grew up in a small farm town in Wisconsin. I got a scholarship to attend New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in 2008, where I developed an affinity for interactive and experimental performance arts. Throughout college I worked in bars and after graduating, I became a yoga teacher. I've always loved philosophy, and I was a competitive gymnast growing up, so it seemed like the perfect job as a I pursued my acting career.
After a couple of years, I began to identify similarities between yoga and performance. To me, teaching yoga felt like an interactive performance art piece — where the students were both audience and actor, and I was the teacher, storyteller and director — creating space for insight and transformation.
That said, most traditional yoga classes you'll attend are quite patriarchal in structure. Imagine: wise teacher who knows all at the top of the room while all students blindly follow instruction, not speaking, nor acknowledging each other's presence. This felt absurd to me. If we're all here to have a collective experience, learn techniques to "be" and cultivate joy, why not interact? Why not use what we have to lift each other up? I knew there was a connection between storytelling and yoga, and that I had the skill and desire to bridge the gap. But I wasn't sure quite how to do it.
In 2017, I started my first company called Divine Your Story. I developed a monologue-writing technique accompanied by a beginner-friendly yoga sequence to help students quite literally rewrite a life narrative that's not serving them in a more joyful direction. I worked really hard on this, and decided the best way to launch my new endeavor was with a Divine Your Story retreat to Bali in January of 2018. (Because I mean, why not? Beats New York in the winter, am I right?)
I soon realized that yoga retreats are a hard sell in New York. Competition is steep, and I was just starting out. Since I was breaking away from a conventional yoga retreat and trying to attract non-yogis, I started brainstorming ideas about how I could reach a new audience of people who might like to sign up for my Bali retreat. Synchronistically, I was out one night late in a bar that I used to bartend at in Lower Manhattan with some friends. I was catching up with the owner, my former boss, who said: "You're a yoga teacher now? You should teach me yoga, I can't even touch my toes!" Then, he bent down and touched his toes. "Oh," he said, surprised. "I guess I can do it when I'm drunk."
I blurted, "Let's just do Drunk Yoga!"
Immediate lightbulb. I asked him then if I could teach a yoga class with wine in-hand in the bar every week. He said, "Sure, what do you want to call it? Tipsy yoga?" I said, "No. Drunk Yoga." (Because go big or go home, right?)
I had this idea: a yoga class designed purely for joy. Wine brings people together and yoga brings you to yourself. So, what better way to inspire unity through community and to make yoga accessible than by letting people do it in bars with friends?
I spent a lot of time coming up with a sequence and fun "yoga drinking games," all for the purpose of lifting spirits. But, alas, nobody came to the class for about a month. I was about to give up, but in one last-ditch effort, I called a journalist friend at Gothamist. She wrote a great article about my Drunk Yoga class and as soon as it was published, it immediately went viral.
In November 2017, millions of people had read about Drunk Yoga and the views and interview requests kept on coming (even still to this day!). I quickly mobilized. I trained new teachers, registered the trademark and developed a business plan.
Now, in 2019, I have an amazing team of dedicated staff who believe in my mission to make yoga fun and accessible to the masses through the support of community — essentially teaching the art of "not taking yoga (or yourself!) too seriously." We're already expanding to other markets, licensing teachers in major cities across the country and hosted our first "Drunk on Joy" yoga retreat to Tuscany in May.
Another way we're expanding is by bringing customized classes to corporate organizations. We're creating "Yoga Menus of Joy," which has been a dream come true for me — to work with specific audiences to curate fun yoga experiences for their team on an on-going basis.
What is an accomplishment that you are proud of?
Generally, I'm proud of every time I've led with kindness and acted with integrity in the face of adversity. Specifically, I'm proud of having created a sustainable company (ahem, Drunk Yoga) that integrates all of my passions, skills and talents in such a way that allows me to do what a love and help foster joy and self-empowerment for others.
What is a challenge that you've faced and overcome?
I was backpacking through India and Thailand in 2015 — having my quarter-life existential crisis, as you do — when, plot twist, I fell through a roof and severely damaged my back. My ribs were broken, ligaments torn and other things I can't pronounce were dislocated. I didn't know if I'd ever be able to do yoga again.
I had to decide what I wanted and why I wanted it if I were to take on the challenge of practicing and teaching yoga in the same capacity as I had previously. Well, I did the deep-soul-diving work and mustered up the motivation necessary. And I'll save you the gruesome details, because my was it a difficult year to follow. Lots of tears and lots of pain. But, listen, I did it. I'm here. Full of scar tissue, sure, and regular visits to the chiropractor, plus a fear of walking on most roofs... But also an enhanced sense of gratitude for life and an understanding of the importance of this ephemeral body.
Who is YOUR Fairygodboss? and Why?
Anna Deveare Smith is my career idol. I've always looked to her and her career path as a guide as I've developed my own. She's a wildly successful solo-performance artist, creating meaningful works that uncover truths about current sociological issues. She's also an acclaimed TV actress and a professor at NYU. She's hard-working, compassionate, and creative. She's built a career that inspires me to do work that matters with integrity and service to community.
What do you do when you're not working?
I'll let you know whenever I stop working... Just kidding. (Kind of.) I love to do "acro yoga" — it's partner yoga mixed with acrobatics. I feel so much joy when I practice acro — it makes me feel strong, connected with others, and present. And Netflix, obviously. I also love a good Netflix show.
Lightning Round: What book would you bring with you on a desert island?
Milan Kundera's "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting."
Lightning Round: What is your shopping vice? What would you buy if you won the lottery?
All the healing crystals. All of them.
What is your no. 1 career tip you'd like to share with other women who want to have successful careers like you?
Take the time to know yourself before diving into any career with full force. However long it takes, learn who you are and what your values are. Know your "why." You can't create anything of substance in your career unless you know who is doing the "doing."